The minute that Willow saw Faith, she knew that something bad was about to happen. And what made her feel worse was the fact that Faith reminded her too much of Tara: a new person in the redhead's life that she had been greatly afraid of upon first meeting her. But while Willow had warmed up to Tara rather quickly (though recent events had given her cause to doubt if she should have), she remained coldly indifferent towards Faith, an act that she knew was out of character for her. As she had never knowingly gone out of her way to harm anyone or feel negatively towards others, it pained Willow to know that she was inherently, and perhaps unfairly, judging Faith. The fact that the brunette was here and looked as if she was about to walk over and stick a knife in her gut certainly didn't do anything to change that mindset. Buffy had told her that there was good in Faith and that she wanted to work to bring it out. But as far as Willow was concerned, Faith was nothing but trouble.
Knowing that she couldn't ignore her, Willow looked up and started directly into Faith's eyes. "What do you want, Faith?"
Faith walked up to Willow, causing the redhead to step back as if she had just been cornered by a wild animal. "I think you know, Red."
Willow gave the brunette a quizzical glance, confused at Faith's response. She had given it to her in a very matter of fact tone of voice, as if the redhead should know exactly why she was here. "Faith, what are you talking about? Why would I know why you're here?"
No sooner had the words passed through her mouth than she realized exactly why Faith could be here. And she mentally slapped herself in the face for not realizing it sooner. If Buffy had either made it to the beach or went there after getting to the docks, she would have told Faith everything that had happened, especially if she had come under attack. Willow grew frightened about this, especially given the fact that if Faith was here, then Buffy should be as well. But from all appearances, it didn't appear as if she was anywhere in the immediate vicinity. Willow had to find out where Buffy was, if only to assuage her mounting fear.
"Faith, have you seen Buffy? Do you know where she is?"
Faith's snarled as she pointed a finger directly into Willow's face. "You got some nerve, Red, acting like you think I have no idea what's going on."
Willow's heart was crashing against her chest, growing more confused and flustered by the moment. Faith was clearly attacking her for some perceived offense that she had done to Buffy. And though she wanted desperately to believe otherwise, it was somewhat sickening for her to realize how much Faith's words were hitting home. But she couldn't let the brunette know what had happened out in the ocean. It was mostly because she was still unsure about what actually happened, but more importantly, it was because she wasn't quite ready to believe the truth. "Faith, I don't know what's going on! I've been out all day with Buffy, and we got..."
Willow paused, unsure of how to continue. She certainly didn't want to bring up Tara to anyone, especially in a conversation like this. But she especially didn't want to talk about her in front of Faith. If Buffy's reaction had been any indication about how other people who didn't understand her and would react to the idea of mermaids, then Willow knew that Faith would be antagonistic towards her, especially if she learned about who and what Tara really was.
"We got separated," she quickly continued, hoping that her momentary pause wouldn't be too noticeable. "I tried to find her, but I couldn't. So I decided to go back to our boat and see if she was there. She wasn't, so I decided to come back home and find out if she was here. You have to believe me, Faith. A...A lot's happened to me in the last couple of days, and I'm trying to figure out how to deal with it."
Planting her hands on her hips, Faith snorted as she flipped her hair back. "And since you couldn't, you decided it would be easier to just drag B out to the middle of the ocean and kill her."
Willow suddenly gave Faith her full attention, wondering how she could be tactless enough to say that. And she also wondered how much that statement didn't seem to affect her as much as she thought it would have. Willow knew why, of course. She'd had the image of her blonde friend's lifeless body in her mind for some time, so it wasn't much of a surprise to hear about it from someone else. After all, all it did was confirm what she had already begun to suspect. But what did surprise her was who had given her waking nightmare a very real and very frightening confirmation, to say nothing about the incredibly insensitive way that Faith had said it. Her tone of voice and accusatory mood finally brought Willow around to the sudden realization that the brunette adamantly believed she had killed Buffy.
"Faith, I didn't..."
Faith's face contorted into one of disgust. "Oh, come off it, Red. I know what happened. I found her out in the ocean with a big ass knife wound in her side. And she said your name with her dying breath. Now, if you ask me, it doesn't take much of a genius to put those two things together."
Willow opened her mouth to deny Faith's words, but found herself with nothing to say. She had been wondering if her actions had brought about Buffy's end, but hearing it from the mouth of someone else just felt wrong. It didn't help that the brunette's words were lashing out at Willow as if she was mercilessly whipping her naked back, making the redhead's already painful thoughts all the more excruciating to deal with.
Blinking her eyes and shaking her head in an attempt to regain her focus, Willow knew she had to say something in her own defense, lest Faith think her silence was an admission of guilt. "Faith, listen to me. I had nothing to do with Buffy's death. I...I didn't even know about it until right now." She knew that wasn't true, but at the same time, she told herself that it wasn't exactly a lie, either. Even though Tara's words had given her a reason to suspect it, Willow had still clung to the hope that she would find Buffy alive. Faith's words, however, had brought that fantasy down around her head as quickly as if it she had used a jackhammer to smash it to pieces.
Her eyes began to water, and Willow knew she was on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown as she continued, "And to be frank, I don't really appreciate the fact that you're attacking me about this. Buffy may have meant a lot to you, but she meant a lot more to me. We've known each other since high school. We've been best friends for years. She went out of her way to make me feel more comfortable about things I did and things I liked which...which I thought would scare and frighten other people if they ever found out. She made me feel like...like a normal person at times when I had reason to wonder if I really was. We even had the rest of our lives all planned out. I was going to be Buffy's maid of honor at her wedding, and she at...at mine. We were going to grow old together and share a room at the old folk's home. We...we were going to forget to take our pills and complain about the temperature in our room. We were supposed to be together forever...I...I've never thought that I would have to spend the rest of my life without her..."
Willow leaned against the side of her car and buried her face in her arms, too emotionally spent to keep herself from crying any longer. The double impact of learning that her best friend was indeed dead and being accused of it by an angry Faith was too much for her to handle, finally unleashing the tears that she had tried desperately to keep buried ever since she first contemplated the idea that Buffy could be out of her life.
Faith, meanwhile, watched Willow's emotional breakdown and realized immediately that she had made a big mistake. The pieces to the puzzle that had pointed her to the conclusion that Willow could have killed Buffy fit together so well that it never occurred to her that she might have been wrong about it. And caught up in her desire to avenge Buffy's murder, she came off as being accusatory and feral, the very image that she had been desperately hoping not to give Willow. The redhead was someone she very much wanted to be friends with, if for no other reason than the fact that she was important to Buffy.
Faith immediately regretted saying what she had said, knowing that in doing so, she was dishonoring Buffy's memory. The brunette figured that it would have been her one wish in life that the two of them could be friends. It was certainly ironic that the opportunity for that to happen only came at the expense of the blonde's own life.
"Red..." she said, her voice a whisper that held back the pain that Willow had let loose. She turned away, trying to keep herself from letting the redhead know how much she had been affected by her words.
Turning to look, Willow thought about the dramatic 180 degree shift that Faith had just undergone. She was unsure whether or not she should believe it, thinking at first that the brunette was simply trying to lull her into a false sense of security by playing with her emotions. But as she watched the animalistic fury and tension that had been in her eyes and wrapped around her body slowly fade away, Willow realized that she was indeed being sincere. It became obvious to Willow that Faith was as deeply affected by Buffy's death as she herself was, but while she was letting herself get depressed to the point of catatonia over it, Faith had decided to take a more proactive approach, trying to find out for herself what exactly had happened. Willow couldn't blame the brunette for that. Given the right set of circumstances, not knowing what she did about the situation, she would want to do the same.
Faith turned at the sound of her own name, seeing Willow looking at her with her arms outstretched, a puppy dog look of sadness on her face. Without a second thought, Faith ran straight into the redhead's arms, the two embracing one another in a tight hug. Their sobs echoed across the empty parking lot as they collapsed to their knees, each of them letting their emotional guard down completely, knowing that the other felt the same way. They held one other for a few minutes more, neither fearing to separate out of concern of the other's feelings. Eventually, they let go of one another and got to their feet, still sniffling and blinking away their remaining tears.
"Red, you gotta understand something. What I said...I didn't mean..."
"I know," Willow said, brushing away a strand of her hair. "You were just...You just wanted to find out what happened to Buffy. She is...she was someone special."
"Yeah," Faith sniffled, turning away to look out at the setting sun. "There's nobody else in the world quite like her, Red. The world's lost someone important today." Turning back, she looked into Willow's eyes. "But at least she can rest in peace now."
Willow blinked. "What?"
Faith swallowed hard, the memory of what happened and her feelings about it still fresh in her mind. "Buffy's last words...well...I didn't catch them all, on account of the fact that she didn't finish them, but...I thought she wanted me to find you and make you pay for what you had done to her. But now that I think about it, I think she wanted me to make sure that you were OK. And now that I know you are, I can get to work making sure that whoever was actually responsible for this pays for what they've done."
Willow who had begun to feel a connection with the feisty brunette, suddenly felt herself ill at ease. Not only because it once again reminded her of Tara's possible role in all of this, but because, despite all that had happened, she felt the need to protect the blonde, and her kind by association, from the well meaning advances of Faith that would no doubt become something substantially different were she to find out what really happened.
Faith's voice cut back into her thoughts. "Like I said, I got the idea from her last words that you had something to do with it. But from what you've just told me...I don't know, Red. I still can't shake the feeling that you know more than you're telling me. Are you sure you have no idea what happened?"
Hearing the question made it almost impossible for Willow to keep herself from blurting out what she felt at that moment. Her thoughts rewound over the course of the past few days, realizing now that with everything that's happened, she may have changed more dramatically than she had thought at first. And Willow knew that it all stemmed back to meeting Tara for the first time. She had been so deeply affected by what had happened to her prior to that, both on an emotional and hormonal level, it never occurred to her to give herself adequate time to think about what had happened to her. And even when she had gotten back to dry land and had the opportunity to do so, Willow didn't dwell on it as much as she knew she should have.
And there was also the fact that Tara had sung to her. Willow realized now it must have been what had affected her actions, because ever since that moment, she had been feeling and thinking things that had never before crossed her mind. Including, she realized with growing sadness and concern, the hastily made decision she had made to bring Buffy to meet Tara. It was something that bothered her greatly. Despite her tendency, because of her spazzy nature, to make decisions like that, she had only done so when it was about something rather insignificant. On decisions like the one she had made to bring Buffy and Tara together, Willow would have spent a great deal of time thinking about it, wondering if it was a good idea and weighing all the pros and cons before finally reaching a decision. And she knew that she would not have made a spur of the moment decision about a choice like that that unless she had somehow been tricked or coerced into doing so. This concerned Willow a great deal, and made her wonder if Tara's song had implanted some sort of subliminal message in her mind, telling the redhead to bring someone down to be sacrificed by her people.
Willow's mind screamed at her in two different voices, each telling her what she should do. The rational part of her mind told her to tell Faith everything that she knew, knowing that it would help bring about the justice that Faith obviously felt Buffy's death required and which she, on some unconscious level, could agree with. But at the same time, the part of her mind that wanted to keep things a secret in order to protect others told her that it would be a bad idea to blurt out what she knew. What she had to say would have been impossible for anyone to willingly accept under normal circumstances. Buffy had seen it for herself firsthand, and things hadn't turned out so well for her. Not to mention that if she were to tell Faith, the brunette would no doubt write her off as an insane lunatic, trying desperately to make up a ludicrous excuse to explain the situation. A situation that, despite everything they had just gone through, Faith might still think she had a role in.
The fact that any attempt on her part to explain to Faith what had happened in those terms would certainly serve to justify that left Willow wondering what she should do. She certainly wanted to explain to the brunette what really happened, but not if that meant putting herself and Tara in any harm. Those two things were something she did not want. "I'm sure," she answered with great emphasis, hoping that Faith would believe her words.
Shaking her head, Faith turned around and walked back to her scooter. Willow watched her walk away, tears once again welling in her eyes. From the brunette's actions, she knew that Faith didn't believe her. Or, at the very least, didn't think she was going to get a straight answer out of her.
"FAITH, I'M NOT LYING! I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DIED!"
Stepping onto the scooter, Faith turned the key and gunned the engine. She then looked up at Willow, seeing a look on the redhead's face that was unmistakably vulnerable. Faith knew by that look that what Willow had said was the absolute truth, at least as far as she knew. And as much as Faith wanted to believe that Willow had nothing to do with what had happened, the redhead's unwillingness to give her an honest answer or possible explanation made her seriously doubt the redhead's words.
Then again, would she really be acting this way if she had killed her best friend? For the moment, Faith really couldn't answer that question as well as she would have liked. But Willow obviously needed to do what she needed to do as well: spend time dealing with the pain that she felt, imagined or not. And for the sake of Buffy, whom she knew would not approve of what she was doing now, Faith was willing to let Willow off the hook, at least for the moment.
Shaking her head, Faith drove up beside Willow's car, turning to look at the redhead. "I know you think that, Red, and I want to believe you. I really, really do. So for now, I'm going to, for Buffy's sake. But I am going to try and find out what happened. And if I find out you've been lying to me, I'm not going to be happy."
Faith gunned the engine and sped off, leaving Willow without the opportunity to deliver a response. The redhead stood and looked out at the departing vehicle for several more moments before she got her keys out of her pocket, walked over to the trunk and opened it to retrieve her gear, all the while trying to keep herself from suffering another emotional collapse.
Several minutes later, Willow walked into the apartment, recalling how much the situation reminded her of what had happened two days ago. Like then, she had just come home from a secret dive trip on which she had met a beautiful blonde mermaid known as Tara, and bared her soul to her. But there was one major difference this time that made her feel depressed about walking inside the place that, up until now, had been a bastion of comfort in a cruel world.
Buffy. There was no comforting presence of her best friend in the apartment to make her feel better about the things that she had done and felt ashamed about. There was no feeling of knowing that Buffy was going to come home and help Willow leave the problems of the day behind her. The redhead felt a sense of loss as she realized this, knowing with some irony that she would have been the first person that would have helped her deal with her grief and loss.
Setting her gear down beside the door, Willow walked towards Buffy's room, stopping in front of the door. She brought her hand to the knob and hesitated for a moment before grasping and turning it. Pushing the door open, Willow stepped inside the room, closing the door behind her. She then drew a deep breath and turned around, looking at the contents of her best friend's room.
There was a Queen sized bed situated against the wall with simple white sheets and two pillows. A clock radio and a framed picture of her family stood on the nightstand beside the bed. There were also two bookcases in the room: one on the opposite side of the bed, the other in front of it. Both held a mix of videos, DVD's, magazines, novels and old school textbooks. Willow found herself smiling at the sight of seeing so much reading material in Buffy's possession. Despite her appearance as the stereotypical uneducated bleached blonde bimbo, the blonde had often enjoyed the thrill and excitement that came from reading a good book.
Knowing this, Willow had given several to her as birthday gifts over the course of their friendship. Walking over to the bookcase beside the bed, she withdrew one which she had given to Buffy on her last birthday: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." Opening the cover, she lifted the dust jacket and looked at the words she had written on the inside cover in her easily recognizable calligraphy: "Happy Birthday, Buffy! I hope you enjoy this. My parents gave me this when we went to London. I want you to have it because...well, it was special to me. Just like you are. Willow." Willow traced a finger over the words she had written before returning the book to where it had been on the shelf.
Her gaze then drifted across the room, coming to a stop on the small cabinet beside the door. Taking a look, she saw that it contained the various trophies, certificates and medals Buffy had won while part of the high school swim team. Although most of certificates stood framed among the trophies and medals, two hung side by side on the wall above it. One was the certificate that the blonde had gotten when she had completed her lifeguard training. The other wasn't a certificate at all, Willow realized upon closer inspection, but a picture. The picture showed Buffy at what looked like her mid teens wearing a blue competition style one piece swimsuit that, because she appeared to have recently been in water, clung to her body. A pair of swimming goggles and a medal hung from around her neck. She stood between two other people, her mother Joyce and younger sister Dawn. Willow had met them many times when she had stayed at Buffy's house for sleepovers and late night homework cramming sessions. All three of them were smiling, Dawn and Joyce clearly expressing their happiness at Buffy's apparent victory.
Looking at that picture, and thinking of the memories of their friendship that it had invoked, brought a fresh wave of sadness and pain over Willow at the loss of her best friend. It also made her think that it was rather selfish to think that she and Faith had the exclusive rights to feel anything about Buffy's death. She had affected a great deal of people in her tragically short life, and both she and Faith had shown a large amount of grief about her loss. But as much as it affected the two of them, Willow knew that it would affect Dawn and Joyce more. She and Faith were Buffy's friends, but Dawn and Joyce were her family. They most likely knew what happened by now, and Willow couldn't help but wonder how they were handling it. Was Joyce sitting in a chair with a cup of tea, crying at the loss of her first born daughter? Was Dawn curled up in a ball in her room and holding a stuffed animal, trying in vain not to believe that her sister had been taken from her?
Blinking away the tears that were welling up in her eyes, Willow moved to the closet and opened it. Looking inside, she wasn't surprised to find it stocked with jeans and t-shirts. Willow knew that Buffy had been a tomboy for most of her life, only wearing fancy clothes such as dresses and high heeled shoes on special occasions. Willow would never forget the pink dress and matching high heels the blonde had worn when she escorted her to prom. It was so unlike her to go to great lengths to beautify herself like that for anybody. But Buffy had said something that night that deeply affected Willow, who realized with those words how much she was willing to go through just to make her best friend happy.
"I know this isn't something I normally do, Will. But because it's you, and because I love you as a friend, I'm willing to do this. I want to make you happy, even if it means putting myself in danger."
Closing the closet door, Willow turned and walked out of the room. As she closed the door and headed towards her own room, she began to cry once more. Seeing Buffy's room, filled with the various knickknacks and personal items that showcased the blonde's brief but vibrant life, reinforced and amplified her feelings of despair. These feelings were amplified by the fact that she knew that they would need to get packed up. She would have to walk back into that room, look at everything that was her best friend's legacy, and put it away as if it were something to be donated to the Salvation Army.
But Willow knew that it wouldn't be going to someone who didn't deserve it. It would be going back to Buffy's family, who could treasure it more than she could by leaving it here. It was the only thing Willow knew she could do with it, since she couldn't keep it that room as if everything was all right. Because she knew that it wasn't. Keeping Buffy's things in her room would only serve to remind the redhead of what she had lost.
Pausing at the door to her room, Willow glanced back at the gear she had left by the door. Moving back to it, she unzipped the pouch on the buoyancy compensatory where she had placed the pearl given to her by Tara. Taking out the smooth marble and letting it rest in the palm of her hand, Willow felt something pass up her arm. It felt as if an electrical current had pass through her, infusing her being with a sense of freshness and calm that she had not felt since...
Since Tara had brought her back to consciousness. Willow almost dropped the pearl out of disgust at the thought, quickly being reminded of how much she was beginning to question her decisions and Tara's possible influence on them. But for some reason she couldn't even begin to fathom, she kept it in her hand. As much as she felt conflicted about Tara and her feelings for the blonde at that moment, Willow knew that it was also somewhat comforting to have something of hers nearby. She just couldn't believe that Tara would be capable of doing something as horrific as what she was imagining. And knowing this, regardless of how much she wanted to doubt it, made her think that things would get better soon. Despite this, however, the negativity that had been brewing in her mind in relation to the mermaid refused to leave her being. It was as if Willow's feelings for Tara were the sun, and her nagging doubts she had about the blonde were a dark cloud that was hanging over it, keeping the full vitality and strength of her feelings from coming forth at their full intensity.
Closing her hand around the pearl, she tried to push those feelings aside, thinking only of pure happiness and warmth as she thought of Tara, hoping that wherever she was, the blonde would feel them and be comforted.
As she swam home, Tara could not help but feel as if she was being watched. No matter how much she tried to feel good about what had transpired between her and Willow, the wrongness of what they had done continued to hang over her, making her feel as if she had betrayed her clan by making love to the redhead. Tara's state of mind was not helped at all by the fact that she was forced to consider that because of her vagueness in offering a conclusion regarding Buffy's safety, in addition to saying nothing about her clan's xenophobia and distrust of humankind, Willow was at this moment beginning to think that she had lured them both down to the sea in order to be killed.
It had pained Tara to realize this, especially since it was her choices that had set everything in motion. Although Baji had given her blessing and said that she would not judge her for her actions, she had been the one to decide to walk the path that had led her here, knowing full well the dangers that were possible. She couldn't blame this on an outside power. She couldn't blame this on some less reputable element of her society influencing her. She had made the choice herself to do what she had done. That made what happened her responsibility.
Her teacher would no doubt try to comfort her, but she was a minority in this situation. If anyone else were to find out what had happened, she would be ostracized and put to death. And all for the simple reason that the Elders feared anything they saw as even remotely harmful to their society. That also meant Willow would feel their wrath, if they were to discover her role in what had happened, when she returned to the ocean.
"If she were to return," Tara thought, fearing once again that Willow would somehow convince herself that the blonde had been in collusion with the others who had killed Buffy and never return, denying her the opportunity to try and explain everything.
But as much as Tara feared that situation and realized the apparent danger should Willow return, she was also beginning to think that, regardless of what the Elders thought about the situation, the redhead's return and the love for each other that they shared, perilous as it was at the moment, could only be seen as a good change to the clan and their way of life. If she could prove to everyone that peaceful coexistence between mermaid and human could happen without the apparent dangers that had made them fearful of the love between Lorelei and her mate, it would do enough to convince others to begin questioning the Elders' decisions as she had. This would force a change whether or not the Elders desired one. And Tara knew that if she could accomplish this, her death would matter little to anybody in her society.
But it would mean that she would be leaving Willow alone, confused and divided between two similar, yet completely divergent, worlds. Tara knew that the redhead possessed qualities of both, yet it was that mixture that would never allow her to feel comfortable living solely in either. It made her feel selfish to think about how much her death would not matter to others, because she hadn't thought to take into account how greatly it would affect Willow, especially if she were to learn that their union had been the catalyst for that senseless act. Having already lost her best friend on land due to the actions of her clan, Tara did not want Willow to lose the only real link to comfort and love that she had available to her.
Approaching the aquatic city that her clan called home, she saw other mermaids swimming around. Males and females conversed with one another while children swam around without a care in the world. She smiled at the antics of the children, hoping that they would grow up without any of the fears and rules that had been so much a part of her own upbringing. Something about the way that the adults were acting, however, made Tara feel uneasy. It was almost as if they were trying to figure out what to do about a potential problem.
Tara turned around to find Baji approaching, her hair billowing in the water. The fact that her teacher was here made her concerns about the others more prominent, for she would not have come here unless she had business with the Elders. The fact that she had specifically called for her meant that what she had to say was for her ears alone. Tara's feelings of uneasiness and concern were rapidly approaching a dangerous point, and she knew that what her teacher would say now would not help them dissipate.
Leading Tara away from the others, Baji turned to look at her. "I've felt something earlier. Have you...Have you done...anything?"
As before, Tara knew that she could not keep anything from Baji, no matter how much she wanted to. So she told her everything: How Willow had brought someone from the surface, how that person had treated her with suspicion and fear and how she and Willow had made love shortly after she had left.
Baji grew uneasy as Tara finished speaking. "Tara, I can feel that you know what's happened, so I won't try to comfort you. Your friends invaded our territory. The one that left you was found by a patrol on her way back to the surface. They...they killed her."
Tara shuddered. She knew that Baji was going to tell her this, but that didn't mean it was easier for her to hear it. "It was an accident. They didn't mean to invade. They...She...Willow only wanted to come back and see me. I...I never thought..." Tara quickly wrapped her arms around Baji, giving her a hug as her tears moved to join the salted water.
Tenderly patting Tara's back, Baji replied, "I know you had the best of intentions, Tara. And luckily, the Elders have not yet treated this incident as anything more than what it appears: a single person unknowingly invading our territory. It's unlikely that any more will be made of this, as the patrol was quite sure that she could not make it anywhere that she could be easily found before she....before she passed."
Hearing that, Tara could feel a mixture of revulsion and relief pass through her. On the one hand, it meant that Buffy would not be found by anyone on the surface, thus preserving the secret of her clan. And anyone that did manage to find her body would more than likely think that her death was the result of something other than an attack by her kind. But it reminded her of how much her mistake had cost Willow, and that she would need to try and explain had happened to her if and when she returned. And now, with clear proof that Buffy had been killed by her kind, Tara wasn't sure that Willow would easily accept an explanation of her innocence in the act.
Baji's voice cut into her thoughts. "Tara, I have to tell you something that you may not want to hear, but I think it is necessary for you to know. This perceived attack on our way of life has made the Elders more...xenophobic than usual. They've decided that until tensions have been lowered among us and the apparent threat has passed, no one is to travel outside our borders out of fear of potentially attracting other unwanted visitors. Now, I said before that I would not disapprove if you wanted to pursue your relationship with Willow. Now, for both your safety and Willow's, I have to go against my word. I don't think you should see her again."
Tara looked into Baji's face, a mixture of sadness and confusion on her face. The words of her teacher were something that she did not want to hear. The two of them had come so far and done so much to prove their mutual love for one another that it revolted Tara to think that a simple misunderstanding by those who didn't know better was threatening to tear what they had done. She would need time to figure out how to deal with this and how to explain everything to Willow, but Baji needed a response now. The elder mermaid needed to be reassured that Tara, who was in every aspect like her own offspring, would not do anything rash. But Tara couldn't agree with what Baji wanted her to say. Nor could she go along with what the Elders decreed. She would not be dissuaded from being with Willow, especially when the redhead had lost the one thing in her life that was special to her. And especially not when Tara could be the only comforting thing she still had in this world.
Willow would need someone in her life now. And Tara wanted it to be her. Mostly, it was because of her happiness at succeeding where Lorelei failed in bridging the gap between mermaid and human. But now, some part of it was because of the guilt she felt about having unknowingly caused Buffy's death. Whether she was actually responsible for it or not, it didn't matter. Willow may think that she was, and that was more than enough to make her feel ashamed. Buffy's death at the hands of her people had been a wanton act of violence, one that could not be simply passed over as an accident as her actions that had led Willow to become lost in the cave and almost die had been.
She had to explain to Willow that it had been an accident. And she had to hope that, in doing so, she could gain her acceptance and love once more. It would not be easy. It may not succeed. But it had to be done.
"I'm sorry, Baji. I can't do what you ask of me. I can't do what the Elders want me to do. Willow has had pain brought down upon her because of us, and it is my responsibility...no, my duty to make sure that she doesn't suffer anymore because of us. Even if it means I will have to be killed."
Baji looked at Tara, neither anger nor fear on her face. "So much like your mother," she murmured, gently hugging Tara once more. "Very well, Tara. But if you choose to do this, do so with the knowledge that anything that you do from this point forward is a risk not only to yourself and our clan, but Willow's life. I know that is not something you wish to risk, so I know you will proceed with caution. But be aware that if something should happen to you, there is nothing I can do to stop reprisals from the Elders."
Tara nodded. "Yes, Master Healer."
Holding onto each other for several more moments, Baji and Tara finally separated. And as the elder mermaid began to swim away, Tara felt a wave of sudden happiness wash over her. Closing her eyes, she could feel the unmistakable presence of Willow mixing with the pleasant feelings, the redhead's life force working gradually to change the blonde's own feelings from somber and subdued to pleased and happy, despite the fact that a trace of uneasiness and fear were present in her own aura. Tara kept her face passive so that she would not attract unwanted attention, but she internally smiled at the fact that wherever she was, and despite whatever sadness and pain she herself was feeling, Willow was attempting to comfort her.
Tara's one wish at that moment was that she could return those feelings.